I live in Spain where general strikes are called with stunning regularity by the chief trade unions. This has not been a good move for the unions, because the Spanish people are so accustomed to strikes – general or otherwise – that they wearily accept them. What the great majority of the population do is take no notice, work as usual, put up with the heavily paid pickets, have a fight or two here and there, but generally carry on with life as best they can.
In Britain a general strike is indeed serious. Everything comes to a halt. No-one works. Many take them (the strikes) as a worthy excuse to get away to the coast or stay in the countryside and visit a stately home – where the pickets cannot get at the guides because they work in someone’s private home.
In May 1926 a real general strike happened between the 4th and 12th of May. Miners were bitter about mine owners wanting to reduce wages and staff, and increase hours of work. Joined by railway and transport workers, they approached the General Council of the Trades Union Congress for help in ‘settling the dispute’. In 1925 they all agreed to stop the mining and movement of coal which was in those days the chief source of energy in Britain.
The Prime Minister was Stanley Baldwin (later to be seriously involved in the Abdication Crisis); he intervened and agreed to subsidize miners’ pay, but only until 1st May 1926. Meanwhile a Royal Commission was set up to inquire into the situation, a commission head by Herbert Samuel.
In March of that year the Samuel Commission recommended the re-organisation of the coal industry into bigger units, as well as suggesting certain pay reductions, and opposing reductions in pay. The miners rejected everything with contempt. When subsidies stopped on May 1st the mine owners closed the mines. In answer to this the TUC produced a Strike Committee under Mr Bevin and the General Strike began on May 4.
Perhaps this famous occasion should better be called a selective, rather than a general strike, because the TUC called out a million and a half workers from transport, printing (which meant the newspapers), iron and steel industries, and power (electricity), in addition to a million mineworkers. The aim of the strike, explained the TUC, was to ‘bring industry to a halt’ while not affecting essential services. Other workers including dockers, railwaymen, journalists and some power station employees joined in with enthusiasm. Stanley Baldwin announced that the General Strike was ‘a challenge to Parliament and (is) the road to anarchy and ruin’.
The middle and upper classes agreed with Baldwin and offered themselves as special constables (their head protected by helmets and armed with truncheons), nurses and drivers of buses. Though Baldwin feared civil war there were a few violent incidents in which people were injured on both sides. Ramsey Macdonald was the leader of the Labour Party and he said, ‘general strikes and Bolshevism and all that kind of thing I have nothing to do with. We must respect the Constitution’. In fact this seems to have been the attitude of many TUC leaders, who disliked the idea of a political strike and feared that they would lose control of most militant members. In any event, neither the Government nor the mine owners made any concessions, and nor did the unions, so the usual stalemate happened. The TUC called off the strike on May 12, with the miners’ dispute unresolved.
The miners themselves, feeling betrayed, stayed off work but had to go back to work in December; their wages were cut and were fixed on a district basis, working hours were neither reduced nor increased, and no re-organization of the industry took place. The British Government (possibly with some glee) made things more painful for the TUC by passing the Trades Disputes and Trades Union Act of 1927, which made strikes in sympathy with other unions illegal, disallowed civil servants from joining trade unions, and made it difficult for union members who wished to contribute funds to the Labour Party. The trade unions remained on the defensive and weak until the Second World War, when they stirred their stumps a little, and after the war they gained enough power to oust a Conservative Prime Minister (Edward Heath), but then came up against the late Margaret Thatcher who collapsed their power utterly.